The painting of portraits seldom brings great change to art. One notable exception to this is the work of Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757), one of the most brilliant of the first wave of painters in pastels, a founding mother of the Rococo, and one of the greatest of all women painters. Several years ago, I promised to look in more detail at her career and paintings, hence this much-delayed article.
She was born into a prosperous Venetian family, and followed her mother in lace-making and other fibrecrafts. She then saw an opportunity to paint miniature portraits onto ivory snuff-boxes, which quickly grew into a successful business. At some time between about 1700-03 she started painting portraits using pastels, which were still a novel medium.
Careful historical research by Thea Burns has established that the first artist to paint using real pastels, which differ from chalks in their binder and manufacture, was most probably Robert Nanteuil (1623-78), whose portraits of figures such as the Bishop of Riez in 1663 are among the first true pastel paintings. He attained fame as artist to the court of Louis XIV.
Carriera’s early sitters were distinguished foreign visitors to Venice, including the reigning kings of Bavaria and of Denmark. These earned her recognition by the Academy of Saint Luke in Rome.
Among these early pastel paintings is this Personification of America (before 1720), showing a First Nations woman with a combination of weapons, including a spear and quiver of arrows, and fine jewellery.
In about 1720, Carriera left Venice for Paris, where she was the guest of one of the great collectors of the day.
Among her most significant portraits is that of Louis XV of France (1710-1774) as Dauphin (1720-21), which confirms the demand she had already generated there. She here demonstrates her great skills in rendering the face and eyes, hair, and the surface textures of fabrics. Among her frequent sitters was Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who had earlier lived with the same collector who had been Carriera’s first French patron, but the artist’s health was declining and he died in 1721 at the age of only 36.
Despite her great success in Paris, Carriera returned to Venice in 1721 after a tour which took her as far afield as Vienna.
In 1724-25, she painted The Singer Faustina Bordoni (1697-1781) with a Musical Score. Bordoni was a Venetian operatic mezzo-soprano who started her career in Venice between 1716-25, and soon after this portrait moved to Vienna to win fame throughout Europe. Carriera was to follow her there in 1730, where she became established in the court of the Holy Emperor Charles VI, who collected over 150 of her pastel paintings. She also taught the Empress Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick.
Carriera painted several self-portraits, of which my favourite is her Self-Portrait as ‘Winter’, completed in 1730-31 soon after she had arrived in Vienna. This demonstrates how, in the fingers of a skilled pastellist, materials which had long been tricky to render in oils, like hair and fur, became strengths, as seen in the detail below.
Here you can see individual grains of pastel forming each mark Carriera made. She didn’t just apply her pastels dry and from the stick, but in places made them into a paste using water, and brushed that onto the paper, a technique still thought innovative in the late nineteenth century.
Carriera’s portrait of A Venetian Lady from the House of Barbarigo (Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo) from 1735-40 shows an interesting Venetian noblewoman who was known for her great beauty, her literary salon, and her popular casino at the Giudecca. The latter was to bring her to the attention of the Venetian Inquisition, who were shocked at the mixing of genders that took place there, and closed the casino in 1747. Twenty years later, they relented on condition that noblewomen who visited casinos did so with their faces covered.
Carriera’s superb portrait of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony (1722-1763) was painted in 1739-40, at the start of a slow decline in her art as a result of developing cataracts in her eyes.
Although the sitter for her Portrait of a Gentleman in Red from 1740 hasn’t been identified, and she painted this during a phase of depression as a result of the death of her sister and her deteriorating vision, this shows how well she combined smooth flesh with painterly marks bringing this man’s clothing to life (detail below).
Carriera’s painterly style is also visible in her rich marks in Africa, for which I regret that I don’t have a date. This is one of a series of paintings of the continents of the world.
Several times in her career, she painted series of the seasons. This undated allegorical portrait of Summer is one of her better examples.
Carriera returned to Venice, where she apparently twice underwent surgery to try to alleviate her cataracts. These were both unsuccessful, and her sight eventually failed. She died in Venice in 1757 at the age of 84. She had several successful (women) students, and was an inspiration to many women artists and pastellists.